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The Great Awakening

An explosion in religious revivalism rocked both England and the American colonies in the eighteenth century. 

Overview

  • The Great Awakening was an outburst of Protestant Revivalism in the eighteenth century.
  • The beliefs of the New Lights of the First Great Awakening competed with the more conservative religion of the first colonists, who were known as Old Lights.
  • The religious fervor in Great Britain and her North American colonies bound the eighteenth-century British Atlantic together in a shared, common experience.

The First Great Awakening

During the 18th century, the British Atlantic experienced an outburst of Protestant revivalism known as the First Great Awakening (a Second Great Awakening took place in the 1800s). During the First Great Awakening, evangelists came from the ranks of several Protestant denominations: Congregationalists, Anglicans—members of the Church of England—and Presbyterians. They rejected what appeared to be sterile, formal modes of worship in favor of a vigorous emotional religiosity.
Whereas Martin Luther and John Calvin had preached a doctrine of predestination and close reading of scripture, new evangelical ministers spread a message of personal and experiential faith that rose above mere book learning. Individuals could bring about their own salvation by accepting Christ, an especially welcome message for those who had felt excluded by traditional Protestantism: women, the young, and people at the lower end of the social spectrum.
The First Great Awakening caused a split between those who followed the evangelical message—the New Lights—and those who rejected it—the Old Lights. The elite ministers in British America were firmly Old Lights, and they censured the new revivalism as chaos.
One outburst of Protestant revivalism began in New Jersey, led by a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church named Theodorus Frelinghuysen. Frelinghuysen’s example inspired other ministers, including Gilbert Tennent, a Presbyterian. Tennant helped to spark a Presbyterian revival in the Middle Colonies—Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey—in part by founding a seminary to train other evangelical clergyman. New Lights also founded colleges in Rhode Island and New Hampshire that would later become Brown University and Dartmouth College.

Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield

In Northampton, Massachusetts, Jonathan Edwards led still another explosion of evangelical fervor. Edwards’s best-known sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, used powerful imagery to describe the terrors of hell and the possibilities of avoiding damnation by personal conversion. One passage reads: “The wrath of God burns against them [sinners], their damnation don’t slumber, the pit is prepared, the fire is made ready, the furnace is now hot, ready to receive them, the flames do now rage and glow. The glittering sword is whet, and held over them, and the pit hath opened her mouth under them.” Edwards’s revival spread along the Connecticut River Valley, and news of the event spread rapidly through the frequent reprinting of his famous sermon.
The frontispiece of "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, A Sermon Preached at Enfield, July 8, 1741"
Image credit: Figure 1 in "Great Awakening and Enlightenment" by OpenStaxCollege, CC BY 4.0.
The foremost evangelical of the Great Awakening was an Anglican minister named George Whitefield (pronounced "whit-field"). Like many evangelical ministers, Whitefield was itinerant, traveling the countryside instead of having his own church and congregation. Between 1739 and 1740, he electrified colonial listeners with his brilliant oratory.
The Great Awakening saw the rise of several Protestant denominations, including Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists—who emphasized adult baptism of converted Christians rather than infant baptism. These new churches gained converts and competed with older Protestant groups like Anglicans, members of the Church of England; Congregationalists, the heirs of Puritanism in America; and Quakers. The influence of these older Protestant groups, such as the New England Congregationalists, declined because of the Great Awakening. Nonetheless, the Great Awakening touched the lives of thousands on both sides of the Atlantic and provided a shared experience in the 18th-century British Empire.

What do you think?

If you had lived during this era, would you have joined in the revivals of the Great Awakening? Why or why not?
Why do you think the ideas of the New Lights were appealing to Protestants?
Do you think cultural movements like the Great Awakening contributed to the separation between the American colonies and Great Britain, or did they bring people on both sides of the Atlantic closer together?

Want to join the conversation?

  • blobby green style avatar for user John Ma
    What caused the Great Awakening?
    (7 votes)
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    • purple pi teal style avatar for user Beverly Liu
      Remember at this time that the colonists living in the colonies did not have the religious fervor of their forebearers. For example, those living in New England no longer had the same conviction for orthodox congregationalism that their parents or grandparents had. Thus religion had begun to decline in the colonies since people began to adopt a "I didn't choose this religion, my parents did" mentality. Thus, the Great Awakening filled the void by providing colonists a connection to the emotional appeal of religion. Moreover, the Enlightenment and the age of rational thought gave the Great Awakening its fuel since both preached the individual (but they disagreed on the purpose of God).
      (37 votes)
  • duskpin seedling style avatar for user Sophie Dotson
    What are the effects of the Great Awakening?
    (2 votes)
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  • aqualine sapling style avatar for user skinnernorthshiwodexuexiao
    So did the Great Awakening only happen in the Middle and New England colonies, or did it happen in the Chesapeake and Southern colonies too? In what regions did it mainly happen?
    (4 votes)
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  • stelly green style avatar for user Hannah
    Don't you love that God swept a revival across the known world to counter the Enlightenment?
    God's got a plan :)
    Where did the Awakening originate?
    (4 votes)
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    • sneak peak blue style avatar for user nonametex211
      Yes, God's got a plan! The Wesley brothers also did a lot to counter the unchristian elements of the Enlightenment in England. In response to David Alexander I would like to mention that the Enlightenment had little or no influence in Siberia or in Patagonia at this time because they were both populated by indigenous people who had little or no contact with anyone outside of their locale. By the time they were introduced to the concepts of the Enlightenment they had also been introduced to the Gospel.
      (4 votes)
  • mr pants purple style avatar for user martins1047
    If I lived during this era, I would have joined in the revivals of the Great Awakening because Christianity is already what I believe in. If I was not a Christian at the time, I would most likely still convert because I would need spiritual guidance in a world with no technology or as much information as we have now.
    I believe the ideas of the New Lights were appealing to Protestants because they were revealed to all the revivals and new beginnings to other people, thinking the New lights could be new beginnings for them as well.
    As much as it should have brought them together, I believe the cultural movements separated the American Colonies from Great Britain due to different beliefs of the Great Awakening and the New Lights. Many thought it was an amazing revival for a new and improved life, as others thought the revivals were a monstrosity.
    (5 votes)
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  • duskpin seed style avatar for user tatiana jenkins
    How does the Great Awakening contribute to the rising tensions between Great Britain and the Colonists?
    (2 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user ammincey5377
    What caused the Great Awakening?
    (3 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      There are many ways to go about responding to this. One can cite physical factors, like better roads and postal service that spread messages more easily. There could be economic factors, either more needy people or more people with the resources to give time to "higher pursuits". One could claim that it had to do with the emergence of famous orators whose reputations drew crowds to hear and believe what was said. It could even be said that the causes were divine, (though, the Awakening being generally restricted to Protestants and not common among Catholics makes that difficult).

      So: infrastructure; economics; entertainment; spiritual... the Great Awakening grew out of some combination of all four.
      (4 votes)
  • starky tree style avatar for user BATMAN!!!
    When was Pentecostalism introduced into the churches?
    (3 votes)
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  • mr pink red style avatar for user 51747
    can we get much higher
    (4 votes)
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  • old spice man green style avatar for user ventura
    What is the great awaking ?
    (0 votes)
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